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SALT LAKE CITY — A Salt Lake City-based company has announced that it is working with a team of researchers at Northwestern University to develop neurotechnology to reduce the effects of jet lag.
It involves using an implant in the brain.
When Blackrock co-founders Marcus Gerhardt and Florian Solzbacher were teenagers, they attended a private preparatory boarding school together in repurposed military housing in a castle near the ocean in Wales.
One day teenage Gerhardt told teenage Solzbacher that he had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. Solzbacher responded with singular purpose that he knew exactly what he wanted to do.
"'I want to create the connection between artificial and natural limb," he said.
He went on to build his entire career around that vision, and many years later, Solzbacher contacted Gerhardt to help him start a company in Utah to do just that — create a brain-computer interface that would allow users to walk, talk, see, hear and feel again.
At first, Gerhardt was hesitant to enter into the already competitive field. But he was drawn to his friend's drive.
"I was hooked since I was 16," Gerhardt told KSL.com. "I was going to support this guy no matter what."
In 2008, the two co-founded Blackrock Neurotech, with Gerhardt as CEO and chief financial officer and Solzbacher as chairman and president.
Blackrock would go on to be the world's leading platform for brain-computer interface technology and manufacturing. The company fosters close relationships with neuroscientists all over the world and collaborates with them to create products specific to their research.
Then in 2016, Nathan Copeland — a Blackrock "pioneer" and one of 29 people who have received the implant — used the chip to move a robotic arm to fist-bump then-President Barack Obama during a tour at the University of Pittsburgh. Copeland was able to experience the sensation of the touch through the artificial limb.
They have accomplished all this using the Utah Array, a minuscule, 4-by-4 millimeter electrode invented in Utah.
The electrode is pressed into the brain during a full craniotomy and uses a hundred little pins that function like a radio receiver, picking up signals while pressed into the brain and sending them out again to equipment like artificial limbs or spellers, which allow motor-disabled people to communicate by spelling out words using their brain.
"You could fit 10 of these on your fingernail," Gerhardt said of the pins.
This neurotechnology is designed with the 600 million patients worldwide that suffer from neurological disorders in mind. Many of these people are still using technology that is around 40 years old, he added.
But after Blackrock achieved Solzbacher's dream of connecting the brain to artificial limbs, they have seen so many possible applications of their technology, including cutting the recovery time for jet lag in half.
The company and a team of interdisciplinary researchers based at Northwestern University signed a contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to develop a wireless implant to speed up jet lag recovery — including the fatigue, gastrointestinal issues and weakened immune response that can come with travel.
The project, called Normalizing Timing of Rhythms Across Internal Networks of Circadian Clocks, regulates peptides, short chains of amino acids that affect sleep. These peptides can adjust the body's circadian rhythm, allowing military and first responders to be alert and ready to go even after long, grueling travel.
Blackrock calls this idea of a personalized implant providing what the body needs when it needs it a "living pharmacy." Rather than relying on pharmaceuticals, the device can stimulate pain away or distribute some pain medication in a regulated way so as to avoid overdose or abuse.
"This is where we see the nexus between biology and electronics," Gerhardt said. "The future of the health care system is that it needs to work closer to biology. It's all going to start merging a little bit to provide the best possible care."
He likened the "living pharmacy" to a pacemaker, an implanted device that sends electrical impulses to the heart to regulate heartbeats.
The idea of an implanted device may seem like a daunting prospect to some, especially given the recent spread of false information that the COVID-19 vaccine contains a microchip used to track people. Gerhardt thinks asking questions is good when it comes to technology and regulation; however, he doesn't feel that people need to be too concerned about future implications.
"When railroads started, people spoke of the smoking dragon and fierce beast rolling along. People were intensely scared by the car and the phone. Some predictions have come true, but overall we have realized the benefit of these advancements as long as we can regulate and control them," Gerhardt said.
He encourages people to put themselves into the perspective of a quadriplegic person or someone with epilepsy or severe depression or even first responders working long shifts.
"It's our obligation as humanity to improve those situations and help people," Gerhardt said. "We're currently hell-bent on getting products in the market in 2022 for extreme cases."
These products will include surface electrodes used to improve epilepsy and deep brain stimulation for Parkinson's patients. The "living pharmacy" and jet lag research has only just started, so it will take longer to become available to the public.